Thursday, January 29, 2009
A semi-free-associational, six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon, reliance-on-patchy-memory look at every movie I saw in a theater this year
I'm probably going to give a lot of worthy films short-shrift, because I'm busier than hell and I want to finish this crazy project before May.
... Another superhero blockbuster part deux, Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army was a lot more fun than The Dark Knight, but not without its problems. Del Toro is such an innovative creator of monsters that I wish I could take my own 5-year-old self along to his movies with me. The monsters in this film are a joy to behold. The story, aah, not-a so much-a, as we say in Fake Italy. Aesthetically speaking, Del Toro creates some beautiful images here, and I love the drunken singalong, but I wish he hadn't swapped the first film's nastily charismatic villains and urban action setting for a bunch of fucking elves and fantasy quests.
... Speaking of buttery, greasy blockbustery Hollywood grand slam breakfasts, David Gordon Green and Gus Van Sant made two films each this year (Snow Angels and Pineapple Express for Green, Paranoid Park and Milk for Van Sant). Even spookier, both made one low-budget independent film and one big Hollywood production with massive promotional budget. Both independents came out first, followed by the mainstream films. It gets spookier. Both independent films were based on novels with screenplays by the directors, but both Hollywood films were based on original screenplays by other people. James Franco starred in both directors' Hollywood movies. Unfortunately not a spooky development at all, the independent films were largely (and unjustly) ignored. Happily, all four films were very good. David Gordon Green actually stepped out of his comfort zone twice. Snow Angels took him from his previous films' poetic South to New England in the winter and a much more conventional narrative structure. Still character-based and artfully composed with Green's typically eccentric eye for images worthy of Terrence Malick, Charles Burnett, and William Eggleston's photos if they moved, Snow Angels is so lived-in and so full of wonderful acting miles from ACTING! by Kate Beckinsale, Amy Sedaris, Tom Noonan, and everyone else in it. Maybe more tragic than it needed to be, with only a new romance by a couple of smart, likable teenagers giving me any hopefulness, it still impressed me. Then came Pineapple Express. Green surprised me by making such a graceful transition to the multiplex with a film so seemingly unrelated to the rest of his work. A director who seemed too personal and idiosyncratic to make a good mainstream film, Green's loose, character-based, visually expressive style matched up well with the Rogen/Apatow team. I really liked it, and I think Danny McBride should be in every movie. Green is also responsible for asking Huey Lewis to sing the film's closing credits song, giving him three instructions: 1) Make the song sound like his 1980s hits. 2) Synopsize the film in the lyrics. 3) Repeat the movie's title often throughout the song. Hear it by clicking here.
Gus Van Sant's last dalliance with Hollywood arguably produced his three worst movies: the competent Good Will Hunting aka Rocky VI: Equations, the puzzling remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, and the anonymous and shitty Finding Forrester aka You're the Man Now, Dogg. Fortunately, his return to mainstream, expensive, movie-star movies, Milk, is a solidly enjoyable, if slightly well-worn, formally interesting entertainment. Though I detest bio-pics more than any other genre of film (I may write a post explaining why someday), and I had grown weary of Sean Penn as an actor thanks to a long string of ponderous, overbearing, speechifying roles, I liked Milk a lot (save for the cringe-inducing scene of boy-in-wheelchair uplift). As so many pundits, hacks, and talented critics have already pointed out, it's nice to see Sean Penn play a joyful character with a sense of humor again. Penn gets to make some speeches and tackle some heavy drama, but his inhabiting of Harvey Milk is actually nuanced and full of space. He listens and reacts to the other actors instead of thespian-sploding all over the place. Josh Brolin and James Franco are also worth seeing here. (I'm not one to pontificate on the possible political impact of a film, and I don't find that approach very interesting anyway, but I do hope Milk can do at least a little bit to make our culture less homophobic.) Van Sant shows a keen interest and sensitivity toward the film's setting and moment in time, and I liked all the attention spent on the details of city government.
Van Sant's films, even his bad ones, are full of such luscious colors and compositions (again, except for the jobbing Forrester), and Milk is no exception. I love the way Van Sant's films look, first and foremost, and that's part of why I fell in love with Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in high school, watching both films dozens and dozens of times. His movies, at their best, have an almost narcotic effect on me. His more low-key 2008 release, Paranoid Park, provided this pure movie hypnosis better than Milk's Academy Award sheen and reliable three-act structure. An extremely loose narrative about a teenage skater who accidentally causes a death, Paranoid Park repeatedly loses itself in images, inarticulate teenage speech, the camera's movements, and the varied soundtrack. A closeup on droplets from a boy's shower-wet hair dripping onto the bottom of the tub becomes an abstract loop of shapes and patterns, as do the scenes of skaters skating at a local park. Comparing apples to oranges, which is all I really do here, Milk is like a Vanity Fair article while Paranoid Park is like a piece of music.
Still more to come, for Christ's sake. I haven't even written about my two favorites of the year yet.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Instead of haranguing people for not holding the exact same opinions I do, I'll attempt to just speak for myself here.
… Painter/critic/teacher/carpenter Manny Farber died in 2008 at the age of 91. "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," probably his most famous essay (deservedly, though it undeservedly overshadows his other great pieces), could very well be partially adapted to express my own problems with The Dark Knight. This is presumptuous on my part, I admit. I have no evidence that Farber watched Christopher Nolan's second Batman movie, and I can't say for sure what Farber would have thought of it. An unpredictable, original thinker whose opinions never stayed fixed (he only reviewed a few films a month because he believed in watching them dozens of times before writing about them and then rewriting and revising his reviews multiple times) and who often used pejorative terms as compliments and complimentary terms as insults, Farber was one of the hardest critics to pin down. Nevertheless, I will hijack his terminology and describe The Dark Knight as White Elephant Art pretending to be Termite Art. Farber describes White Elephant Art as what happens when "the private voice" of an artist "is inevitably ruined by having to spread these small pleasures into great contained works." These pleasures are "usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece." This artwork, then, "becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist's signature, now turned into mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today's esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art." Termite Art, on the other hand, is "good work" that "usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." Termite art concentrates on "nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed." On the other hand, "(m)asterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies."
Taking Farber's words dictionary-literally rather than in the squirmy, wriggly spirit I think he intended, one could make the argument that The Dark Knight is eating its own boundaries and avoids the first two of the "three sins of White Elephant Art": "1. frame the action with an all-over pattern, 2. install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and 3. treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity." However, Nolan's second Bat movie merely appears to avoid these first two sins because it is so poorly framed and edited. Its screenplay all-over-frames the action and fixes every event, character, and situation in a very tightly controlled, simplistic role. Meanwhile, Nolan's frenetic, disorganized framing and cutting make it impossible to tell what's happening spatially, creating a continuity of discontinuity, a formless form, that gives the illusion of an exciting experience without actually providing anything at all, squandering the small pleasures Nolan showed in Memento. It's a lumbering, overlong yet bizarrely fleeting beast loudly professing its artistic worth and political/cultural importance, but this political importance is calculated to appeal to libs and neo-cons alike, again creating a continuous discontinuity, a content-less content, a formless form, an elephant disguised as a termite. Wall Street Journal columnist Andrew Klavan: "There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand." Michael Dudley of the Institute on Urban Studies: "The Dark Knight takes the viewer on a sometimes traumatic but ultimately redemptive and humanistic journey towards a post-9/11 ethic." This muddle happens when you spy on innocent, private citizens, just once, to catch an evil-doer, and then destroy the device, letting freedom ring once again. This dark knight in shining armor is a uniter, not a divider.
A quote I enjoy, from film critic Dave Kehr: "Both the ferry boat and the wrong-rescue scenes are typical of “The Dark Knight”’s strategy of setting up impossible, “Sophie’s Choice”-like moral dilemmas for its hero, and then resolving them through sleight-of-hand: in a bit of reverse racism, a scary-looking black man steps up to make the tough moral choice that a wimpy-looking white guy is unable to handle; Batman arrives to rescue his girl friend, only to find that the Joker has betrayed him (!) and switched locations. In both cases the hero gets to look fine and noble while he wrestles with issues that are then resolved with no moral cost to him. I agree that the movie is not triumphalist, but triumphalism is hardly in style at this point in time. Instead, it substitutes the dark romanticism of the misunderstood outsider, who takes on the sins of the community the better to redeem the poor saps who will remain forever ungrateful to him — a slight improvement over a ticker tape parade finale, but still a self-flattering, adolescent notion."
On to the formal stuff: Another one good one from Kehr about the circling of the actors with the camera that pretty much happened goddamn constantly in The Dark Knight (though I don't share Kehr's distaste for Robert Altman): "As an aside, I’d just note that the “circle the principals” move Larry [one of the commenters on his blog] describes has become as ubiquitous in contemporary films as the zooms of the 1970s – to me, it’s just another sign of lazy direction, like Altman’s slow zooms in on a single figure in one of his clothesline ‘scope compositions. You see it in romantic comedies as well as action films. The other night I was watching a tiny Poverty Row picture – “A Shot in the Dark,” directed by Charles Lamont for Chesterfield (1935), and at the moment one character tells another that an apparent suicide was anything but, Lamont dollies about 90 degrees around the latter, just enough to suggest that something fundamental in his view of/relation to the world has changed. In this context, it’s an expressive, even subtle device – but a whole film shot that way expresses nothing more than the director’s lack of confidence in his own material, his gnawing need to “punch things up” and “keep things moving” for today’s restive audiences. My sense for some time has been that the two principal emotions expressed by Hollywood films are anger and self-pity, both of which are spectacularly on display in “The Dark Knight.”"
More of the film's formal confusions are being talked about by Jim Emerson. Read them by clicking here.
Alongside its wishy-washiness and spatial incoherence, the latest Batman movie suffered from a dreariness and grimness that the mass audience who mostly loved this movie found easy to overlook. I enjoy dark films, but this one was just depressing. There was no joy, no humanity, just a depressing series of deaths and injuries and brooding and pity. I may be over-sensitive this year (the four deaths in my family in 2008 have caused me to react more emotionally to various cultural blop-glop than I'm wont to do), but, my sweet lord, what a joyless film. One of the only moments of actual pleasure I experienced watching the movie was the conclusion of the car chase, when the front wheel of Batman's motorcycle bounced off a wall. There's a fine superhero spin on the neo-noir of LA Confidential buried in this muddle somewhere. Maybe Curtis Hanson or Walter Hill should have made it.
Though I am of the opinion that people are going a little too nuts about Heath Ledger's performance, I found his Joker a rare bright spot in this gloomy over-stuffed piece of thing, alongside the movie's real winners: the art directors and makeup artists. Ledger gave the proceedings a humor, darkness (as opposed to dreariness), lightness (in movement), and fixed presence lacking in the rest of it. I loved the moment when he stuck his head out of the window of his automobile like an old dog and the soundtrack cut out for a few seconds and when he walked down the street in broad daylight in a nurse's uniform in the seconds before the hospital explodes. He was a very, very talented actor among a peer group of generically pretty dullards, and his death is a River Pheonix-style waste. Unfortunately, I spent most of the movie wishing that Ledger's Joker could be removed from Nolan's film and placed in Tim Burton's. Why did I have such a different experience from most of this movie's massive audience? Why do I like the stills from the movie so much better than the movie itself?
Excerpts from the 1962 Farber essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" were taken from the 1998 Da Capo Press reprint of his 1971 essay collection, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
A reply from myself to myself re: last night's post solely consisting of a song title from the first Funkadelic album
I think some of the major problems with movie culture is that films are so ridiculously expensive to make, even tiny little mega-independent productions, so many jerk-offs think they're something special because they work on movies even if their job is answering phones or buying sandwiches, and the average moron thinks he/she is an expert on movies even if the last movie he/she saw in a theater was Joe Dirt. Add to this the severe anti-intellectual, anti-art bent that pervades American society and causes otherwise intelligent people to make massive generalizations about things they don't understand and to throw out many babies with bathwater. On the other hand, even bigger idiots who think they're smarty-pantses simply repeat what every other smarty-pants says about movies without stopping to question why everyone in the goddamned world is talking about the same 20 goddamn movies each year when many, many other interesting films are also out and being ignored.
Reading a movie blog I like today, I was dismayed to (partially) agree with this paragraph:
"...I should probably point out here that no one I know outside the confines of the internet has even a fleeting interest in cinema beyond its diversionary function. It means nothing, less than nothing, to anyone I'm even casually acquainted with; and speaking about it with even a particle of enthusiasm . . . as I sometimes do when I'm unable to govern the impulse properly . . . gets you either amused chuckles or uncomprehending stares (take your pick). For all the social good it does, you might as well tell people you've been moonlighting as a part-time carnival geek."
Now, I don't really care about the social good in being an enthusiastic admirer of film as an art form, and I know several people who have more than a fleeting interest in movies, but I don't know many people at all who are interested in film in its non-zeitgeisty totality (besides weirdos, creeps, and assholes). This bums me out because I know tons of people who are into music and literature and painting and photography and sports and cooking and automobiles and philosophy and science and pro wrestling and plants and on and on in their non-zeitgeisty totalities. Movies, on the other hand, seem to exist to most people I know as less than nothing except for diversion and/or immediate zeitgeisty so-and-so. (I'm using "zeitgeist" in its English sense of immediacy and not in the German sense of something that happened in the past, by the way.) I can pretty much guarantee comments if I write about English-language films with massive distribution from the very recent past, but nobody seems to give a shit about movies older than 1985, or in black and white, or from foreign countries, or in either very short or very long form, or independent (as opposed to "indie"), or only on VHS, or lacking massive advertising campaigns, or animated, or of "disreputable" genres. This makes it much harder to convince people that movies are as important as literature or music, etc., since no one ever sees the really, really great, great, great stuff.
But a bigger problem than all that is the slavish devotion to content over form and structure and performance and personal style by the vast majority of people who watch movies. No one in their right mind likes a song solely because of what its about. Its the sound and how that sound is organized and how those organized sounds are played that makes people like music. It's the same goddamn fucking thing with movies, you motherfucking jerks. What a movie's about is of a certain importance, but that importance is the least of a very long list. Same with any art form. Why it works or doesn't is because of structure, form, style, performance, and a wee, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny bit of what it's about. It's why I was enthralled with the prologue of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, a detailed account of a baseball game, even though I'm bored shitless by baseball. I loved how he put his sentences together. I'm not denying the pleasures of getting caught up in a storyline, but that's the least interesting part. Art forms aren't really that different from each other. It's just artists picking different tools. Somehow we all already know this about music, but we can't seem to figure it out about movies (except for music critics, who seem to waste all their time analyzing lyrical content except for the token two sentences with generic descriptions of sound-labeling).
This content-only thing with movies has to stop. How should always destroy what. It's why I get laughed at when I say that Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the respective oeuvres of Russ Meyer and Joe Dante are great movies, why people tell me I'm talking about boring esoterica when I talk about John Cassavetes, Jacques Rivette, Luis Bunuel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, etc., and why I have to hear about the greatness of Atonement and how people really learned a lot about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash from Ray and Walk the Line. Sour whiny grapes, sure. But you never hear people say, "I really liked that painting because it was about sisters or World War II or Internet dating or basketball."
This turned into a rant instead of a considered explanation of what I'm all about, so I'll quit while I'm way behind and never speak of this subject again.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
… The Coen Brothers’ comedy of stupid fitness center employees and central intelligence clusterfucks fits our present clusterfucked zeitgeist pretty neatly and might as well be an unintentional State of the Union address. Errol Morris and George A. Romero both took a whack at intentionally addressing our political present in 2008. Morris’ documentary about the U.S. military personnel in the Abu Ghraib photos, Standard Operating Procedure, drew criticism from both neo-conservative and liberal knuckleheads. The neo-Repub fascist zombie dinosaurs trotted out the old “how dare you criticize the U.S. government during a time of war” and “how dare you show compassion for terrorists while criticizing our military” bullshit and the knee-jerk pamphlet-reading Castro-apologist constantly outraged humorless liberal types were mad that Morris interviewed Lynndie England and the others from the infamous photos and gave them the opportunity to tell their own stories. I wish Morris had interviewed some of the Iraqi prisoners, too, but that’s not what this doc is about. (In interviews about this film, Morris said that many of the prisoners were too shamed by the photos to talk about them publicly anyway.) Morris is deeply interested in who took the photos, why the photos were taken, what happened before, during and after the photos, and what existed outside the frame. He’s also interested in what happened to these soldiers after the photos were leaked. Morris gives ‘em enough rope, and he gets a story of bored, terrified, inexperienced young people thrust into an insane situation, goaded into their appalling behavior by their superiors, who then throw them under the bus when the photos are leaked. They’re fall guys, but they’re guilty, too, and many of them try to abdicate their responsibility. Morris’ film is compelling but frustratingly elusive, just like his subjects. His dramatic recreations are a bit overblown for my taste, and the usually reliable Danny Elfman provides a score that’s overbearing and imitative of Morris’ usual composer, Philip Glass. I miss the Morris of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, but I’m still interested in what he’s doing.
My favorite horror director and social satirist, George A. Romero, returned to zombie town for Diary of the Dead, his fifth film about undead brain eaters. This time, the political targets were kind of limp and unfocused, and the pretty boys and girls in the cast lacked the character of Romero’s usual ensembles. However, the tension, scares, suspense, and gore rivaled Romero at his kinetic best, and the elderly yet eternally youthful director is such a punchy, energetic, inventive visual stylist I could overlook a lot of serious flaws. Diary of the Dead tackles the ambitious subject of our information-saturated age (the 24-hour-news cycle of constant chatter, reality TV, blogs, IM, GPS, iPod, YouTube, etc.), but the characters spend too much time hammering the point home with repetitive, forced dialogue. Romero’s previous zombie films satirized their targets (squares vs. the counterculture, redneck vigilantes, racism, mindless consumerism, military intelligence, xenophobia, class, Bush II’s post-9/11 America) visually, leaving the message out of the dialogue and letting the image carry the weight. Even with its clumsy screenplay, though, Diary of the Dead is a solid horror movie and a worthy example of Romero’s mastery of form…
…Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, a nearly dialogue-free pure cinema experience from 2003 I saw this year at a Film Society screening, was such a powerfully immersive experience I didn’t want it to end. It seems impossible in our culture to get away from noise. One thing happens and 463 people analyze it immediately, no time to think it through. I am as guilty of this as anyone with my three fucking blogs, but I’m doing my half-hearted part to rectify the situation by posting so infrequently. This movie takes you away from noise for a couple hours and lets you relearn how to really look at objects and people again. Tsai’s film takes place in a movie theater on its last legs, showing a sparsely attended King Hu kung fu movie from 1966 called Dragon Inn. The kung fu movie plays on the screen within the screen, and Tsai’s movie watches the filmgoers as they watch (or don’t watch) it. Glacially paced but never boring, Tsai patiently watches the old man and his grandson, the older gay men who use the theater to cruise for sex, the sexpot who cracks peanuts loudly with her teeth, one after the other, the ticket-taker with the bad leg who has a crush on the projectionist who never seems to be in the projection booth. You learn so much about so many people without hearing most of them speak. Discounting the sound of the kung fu film, no dialogue occurs until 40 minutes have passed. Little things magnify, details feel enormous. The ticket-taker’s Sisyphean efforts to give her extra pastry to the projectionist while it’s still warm, up the wooden stairs on her bad leg, excited me 100 times more than anything in The Dark Knight (but more on that one later).
Another slowly paced effort from a master, Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais (the American title comes from the Balzac source novel, but I prefer the original French title Ne touchez pas la hache – “Don’t touch the axe”), is a costume drama of unrequited love and parlor games with all the movie bullshit sucked out. Instead of a postcard-pretty aristocratic past, we get real old wooden floors that creak whenever anyone steps across them and real pain instead of boo-hoo poor little rich girl/boy you’ll find love in the end it’s all just a lark of the rich anyway. Like the ticket-taker in Goodbye Dragon Inn, Rivette’s protagonist, a French general who falls in one-sided love with a married high-society woman who toys with him (until she falls in love with him after he becomes unavailable), has a pronounced limp, and the way he drags it across the wooden floors with varying degrees of thud depending on his emotional state was one of my movie thrills of the year. I can’t say I’m entirely in love with the movie. It’s distant and occasionally inert (though occasionally [insert hyperbolic adjective indicating excitement and thrills here!!]), but there’s something indescribable in it that only exists in movies.
Guillaume Depardieu (Gerard’s son) played the limping French general. I assumed the limp was either an invention of Depardieu’s or Rivette’s or came from the Balzac novel, but Depardieu walked on a prosthetic leg. His real leg had been amputated after a severe infection set in following a motorcycle crash. Depardieu died unexpectedly of pneumonia a few months ago, at the age of 37. Long estranged from his famous family and sickly for most of his life, Depardieu and his tragic life story will probably imbue the Rivette film with a weight it didn’t possess before. At least Rivette’s film can carry that extra weight. A much more popular film couldn’t. Which brings us to The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger, but that’ll have to wait until next time…
Coming sooner or later, my lonely position as a non-fan of the latest Batman movie, other blockbusters, David Gordon Green and Gus Van Sant, my two favorite movies of the year, and a random assortment of other stuff. Since everything has to be a goddamn trilogy now, my year-end post will be a trilogy, too. Unless it turns into a quadrillogy. Who gives a shit? Less people read this blog than even my other two noise-makers and space-fillers. Happy New Year!
Friday, January 02, 2009
The first two movies I saw in a theater in 2008 were technically 2007 releases, which means they opened theatrically in 2008 in nearly every part of the
…Let’s get small. Hardly anybody saw Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind or Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely. Why not? Many of the hardly anybody expressed scorn. Why? I have mixed feelings about Korine’s latest film, his first after a long absence, but how could any non-robotic humanoid see some of the images he creates and feel nothing? Korine has often been accused of laughing at his “grotesque” characters, but I think that line of criticism says more about his accusers. Outrage at exploitation as camouflage for intolerance. A failure to acknowledge one’s own contempt for humanity. A shifting of the blame outwards. Korine’s latest falls flat for me when he forces a linear narrative and dials up a sweetly awkward sentimentality, but he creates images I’ve never seen before, and a lot of them. Nuns jumping from planes without parachutes, tiny cloth flecks floating through endless blue; a Michael Jackson impersonator or maybe the real thing riding a tiny motorcycle in slow motion to Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” cloth facemask and sunglasses, stuffed monkey with wings and a fez attached to something protruding from the bike; painted eggs singing along to Iris DeMent. What the fuck is a quantum of solace?
The consensus is Michel Gondry does a better job when he has a Charlie Kaufman screenplay and becomes sloppy when he’s left to his own devices. I disagree. Sloppy, nuts. Movies used to be able to wander, relax, and meander without a bunch of petty, pissy bitching and moaning from the terminally ADD’d. I enjoy the Kaufman/Gondry collaborations, but I prefer Gondry alone. Gondry’s goofy, playful let’s see what we can do with this cardboard box and tinfoil exists in a different space than Kaufman’s nightmarish brain maze of identity, body, and sex neuroses. It’s been fun to see Gondry unfettered (“Gondry Unfettered,” premiering on Showtime this spring right after “
…Speaking of Charlie Kaufman, he directed one of his screenplays for the first time. Synecdoche, New York is easy to admire, hard to love. Like all the other Kaufman scripts, it has a great premise, and not just a premise. It’s filled in and lived in and full of ideas and people. It’s scary and funny. Unlike his other work, though, it’s not that much fun. Instead of portals to John Malkovich and memory eraser head trips, we get body fluids, decay, flaky skin, bowel movements, rust-colored urine, shaving cuts, convulsions, unsatisfying conclusions to romantic relationships, aging, death. There’s not much levity here, no respite, no joy. The film deliberately loses structure and momentum as it nears its last act. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character takes little pleasure in his monumental art project. The whole thing peters out into dilapidation, fatigue, loneliness, and oblivion. It deserves to be seen many times – there’s a whole world in it – but it’s hard to imagine working up the enthusiasm. Still, I think it’s an admirable piece of work. I liked it, I think. The cast is bananas. It’s as if Kaufman called me up (he didn’t) and asked me who to invite to his little self-reflexive worry party. Tom Noonan (I’ll put him first because he either gets mentioned last or left out entirely, a disgrace that without hyperbole is worse than ten Hiroshimas), Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton (who was also in Mister Lonely), Emily Watson, many other fine people.
In some ways, Synecdoche reminds me of the novel I’m reading right now, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a sprawling but intimate epic taking place over fifty years, told achronologically with dialogue that alternates between the normal, ritualized, and specific minutiae of daily living and mannered, grandstanding philosophizing incorporating the sweep of everything that ever happened in highly artificial speech patterns. Kaufman reminds me a little of Luis Bunuel, too, in his blackly comic blending of reality and fantasy. Bunuel was a master, though, and has a lighter touch than Kaufman. Bunuel’s movies look effortless, like they sprang from his head during an afternoon digression and materialized without expenditure of effort, which is of course a lot of flowery bullshit on my part. Bunuel’s last movie, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, which I saw in a revival screening this year, is perfect. By that I mean an elegant (but I need a stronger word than elegant that doesn’t exist) marriage of content and form, a film that looks like it exists outside of the mere confines of the frame, a living, breathing organism with a life of its own. A lot of pretentious nonsense, and I’m having trouble saying what I mean. It’s good, that’s all. Bunuel and his star, Fernando Rey, are both dead now, but they’re still alive in this movie, while Kaufman and his cast in Synecdoche seem like ghosts, obituaries caught on film. This isn’t a slam on Kaufman’s movie, just an observation on the liveliness of the elderly, ailing Bunuel’s vibrant final film and the somber death-fear of the early-middle-aged Kaufman’s first directorial effort. Maybe we now live in shitty, paranoid-sick times, but I thought we always did. In Bunuel’s film, two separate actresses with highly distinctive features and temperaments play the same woman, a woman Rey becomes infatuated with and who toys with the old man in all kinds of devious mental and sexual ways. The actresses are swapped out and alternated seemingly at random, but the changes make emotional sense that resists written explanation. Hoffman’s relationship with Morton in Synecdoche is so similar, but so different. Morton’s house is continually on fire. I think Fernando Rey is there now, sweating uncomfortably…
…Werner Herzog was in Mister Lonely, too, playing a priest. I listened to the latest disc in Neil Young’s recent Archives Series of live albums today,
…Speaking of dropping things, many critics and regular people, too, said Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn after Reading was a falling off after the “greatness” of No Country for Old Men. “Slight” is the word that comes up most often. Because, you know, comedy is so much less “serious” than cattle guns through the forehead. Burn after Reading, I think, is the most enjoyable movie the Coens have made since The Big Lebowski, a movie that was also called “slight” following another multi-Oscar-nominated critics’ darling (Fargo). Like Lebowski, Burn after Reading dispenses with the art-decorated-to-death stylistic overkill the brothers usually favor in their screwball comedies, but the extent of its spareness is surprising. This is probably the most bare-bones Coen Bros. movie, visually speaking, and though the comedy is wacky and exaggerated, the exaggerations come out of real human weaknesses. Like all Coen Bros. movies, the actors are tailor-made for their roles. John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins are particularly good here, with the former caustic, hilarious, and scary as hell. The violence is surprisingly tough, maybe tougher than in their Cormac McCarthy adaptation because it’s so unexpected. Stupidity has a real consequence here. And it’s funny, too. Really fucking funny. I’m not the Amazing Kreskin or that loser Uri Geller, but I think Burn after Reading may enjoy the same belated reputation as The Big Lebowski. To paraphrase the real Seymour Skinner, if this is slight, then slight me up...
...To Be Continued
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